viGlobal’s Guide to Best Practices in Real-Time Feedback for Professional Services Organizations

CHAPTER 1: THE BASICS OF REAL-TIME FEEDBACK

HR educator and analyst Josh Bersin has written about “the big shift” within performance management. The previous norm of a year-end annual review (what he calls the “competitive evaluation,” where the goal is rating and ranking your employees) has been shifting over the last two decades to what he defined as the continuous “coaching and development” model. It focuses on trying to help all employees grow and perform better, with the managers acting as coaches, rather than supervisors like they were in the old management hierarchy.

His assessment of performance management today includes check-ins and feedback as a way to manage the day-to-day work and ongoing goals that will continue to be a part of the performance measurement and review process.

Most organizations tend to go for the best of both worlds, supplementing their annual or recurring review cycles with continuous feedback. According to our legal industry surveys, 90 percent of law firms plan to retain annual reviews and enhance them with real-time feedback.

What is real-time feedback and why should we care about it?

Real-time feedback (RTF) is a performance management strategy that consists of providing and tracking continuous feedback on an employee’s work throughout the year. It’s a critical piece in any comprehensive performance management process, and can integrate with annual performance evaluations.

What are the benefits of real-time feedback for an organization and its employees?

For the organization
  • It fills the feedback gap between annual evaluations: The gap between annual reviews puts performance at risk. If an employee’s struggles go unnoticed until the end of the year, it can affect their development, as well as the quality of work the organization is putting out as a whole. For professional services organizations, this can negatively affect client engagement and the organization’s bottom line.
  • It course corrects individual performance with instantaneous feedback on work: When feedback is less frequent, there’s more time for problems or bad habits to develop. RTF is about knowing how people are doing on any given day, no matter where they are working from, and giving them quick and precise help along the way.
  • It cements and strengthens coaching and mentoring relationships: Access to feedback on an employee can educate and orient mentors, especially when it comes from multiple sources. They’ll get a holistic view of the employee’s performance so they can further understand, coach, and help them.
  • It nurtures a more engaged and higher performing workforce: Employees that are consistently recognized and told how they can improve are going to perform better and feel more satisfied at your organization.
  • It can make a huge difference in recruiting and retaining employees: When you’re competing to attract and keep top talent, a proven system of frequent recognition and guidance can set you apart from headhunters and big salaries.
For specific roles
  • Leadership
    • Improves retention, which saves money on hiring and training
    • Increases productivity and aligns performance
    • Helps build a culture of transparency and trust
    • Identifies where development and training is needed
    • Gives better visibility of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses with accurate and unbiased data
  • Partners and Managers
    • Improves management and coaching skills
    • Enables better understanding of their team’s performance and how to improve it
    • Identifies opportunities to correct performance issues and reinforce strong performance
    • Fuels a faster, easier, and more accurate year-end review processes
  • Professionals and Staff
    • Helps them plan growth and development to achieve their goals
    • Motivates them and makes them feel recognized for their accomplishments
    • Gives them ownership over their career trajectory and growth potential
    • Lets them know if they’re on the right track or need to adjust their performance
    • Younger generations, like Millennials and Gen Z, get the instant feedback they value and expect
FACT

62% of Millennials have felt “blindsided” by a performance review.

74% frequently feel “in the dark” about how their managers and peers think they’re performing at work.

85% would feel more confident in their current position if they could have more frequent performance conversations with their manager.

Source: TriNet survey

How is real-time feedback used in professional services organizations?

Though any organization can utilize RTF as a way of taking snapshots of an employee’s performance, professional services organizations such as law firms, consulting firms, and accounting firms are particularly suited to it due to the nature of their client work.

For their staff, they can base their feedback on the employee’s responsibilities as a whole, or a specific issue the employee needs guidance on. For their lawyers, consultants, or associates, who are likely billing hours on multiple client projects, they have the option of attaching feedback requests to specific projects.

RTF software that supports project feedback can import work directly from billing systems and suggest feedback requests at project checkpoints or billing thresholds. Though professional services industries and organizations can vary in their project structure and the role feedback plays, there’s always a context to set that makes sure their feedback is relevant and targeted to the work.

CHAPTER 2: PREPARING YOUR ORGANIZATION FOR REAL-TIME FEEDBACK

How can you implement an effective real-time feedback system?

Understand your firm’s current feedback culture

Do an honest review of the role feedback has played in your organization. This will provide a roadmap of what an RTF system can do for you and what incentivization and training will be required to encourage adoption.

  • Questions to start you off:
    • Are your partners or managers already giving feedback?
    • Are they comfortable providing constructive feedback?
    • Do they know how to provide constructive feedback in real time?
    • How are mistakes viewed at your organization? Are they opportunities for growth or a big problem?
    • How does your organization view feedback? Is it seen as coaching or telling someone they’re bad at your job?
Help your people understand why RTF is worth their time
  • Adopting new processes that seem like more work can be a tough sell. Take the time to explain the benefits and returns to your organization as a whole, and to people in specific roles. (See “What are the benefits of real-time feedback in the workplace?” in Part 1 of this guide.)
  • Communicate to managers that this work not only fine-tunes performance, but saves them time and effort in the long-run. For the people providing feedback, it may seem like they’re going to have all these requests they didn’t have before. But RTF should be a quick and easy way to help employees discover early on where they are excelling or lacking, and it will save them work on annual evaluations.
  • Give managers tangible evidence that feedback is helping. Show your managers how an employee’s behavior or work quality has improved after getting feedback. Adding a hidden scoring system to feedback can quantify how an employee improves throughout the year.
Help your team get comfortable with the system before launch

In the upcoming section, “What are the best practices for giving feedback?”, you’ll find references and recommendations for providing effective feedback in the RTF system. These are great resources for training your people on how to give specific and constructive feedback. In addition to training, consider involving your people in the process of designing the feedback workflow and triggers. It can help ensure that you end up with a system that is easy for everyone to use and adopt.

  • The people providing feedback are typically in managerial roles at your organization. Your employees will be best served receiving feedback from someone with seniority and respect, who has been overseeing their work, knows what the firm expects, and can guide them to success. Peers will occasionally have good insight, but they are often in the same boat and don’t know what management expects.
  • Work with your managers and employees to decide the frequency of feedback and when feedback recommendations should be triggered. This helps ensure that everyone is comfortable with the process before launching it. The system designer can consider where the users need guidance and set up the system to make it easy and effective for everyone, and then train people accordingly.
  • Consider piloting the system with a small group first, with enthusiastic evaluators who are willing and ready to be mentors. The RTF process will be easier if managers volunteer and are not mandated to use the system.
  • Once the system is up and running, gather people’s feedback on it and continue to adjust to make it work for you. The RTF software will guide them towards effective and appropriate feedback requests, but setting custom criteria can make the system tighter and better (e.g., setting specific billing thresholds for different types of work, setting rules about which roles can ask for feedback from other roles).
Incentivize and encourage your people to use RTF

Here are some suggestions and best practices we’ve learned when it comes to establishing an RTF system and encouraging adoption.

  • Maintain awareness, especially in the first year
    • A kick-off event, to celebrate and educate
    • “Feedback Fridays” or similar themes to promote usage
    • RTF branded supplies such as pens, webcam covers, coasters, notepads
    • Signs and notices on internal sites
    • Direct reminders from admins on top of automated system reminders
    • Leadership steps in if individuals are not completing it correctly
  • Public recognition
    • Top users are recognized by posters or in meetings
    • Sharing pieces of positive feedback
    • Team meetings or department meetings on RTF
  • Champions
    • High-ranking and respected individuals drive the initiative, but also the right champions at every level (senior leadership, managers, associates, and staff) who promote RTF to their peers
    • A champion who considers both sides of the evaluator-employee relationship and follows up with them accordingly to encourage them to continue to use RTF
  • Participation rewards
    • Quotas
    • Tiered prizes
      • Gift cards
      • Days off
      • Special events
      • Lunch with the CEO or a partner
    • Draws
  • Education and training
    • Courses and resources on giving and receiving feedback
    • See resources in next section

CHAPTER 3: SETTING UP YOUR REAL-TIME FEEDBACK SYSTEM

What are the most common real-time feedback workflows?

There are many ways to design a feedback workflow for your organization. Here are some examples of common high-level workflows.
  • Shared feedback
    • Triggered by the employee or evaluator
      • Anyone can initiate or request feedback at any time
      • Feedback is visible to evaluator and employee
  • Private feedback
    • Triggered by the partner, manager, or supervisor
      • Evaluator makes notes on the employee’s performance
      • Only visible to evaluator, professional development team, and administrators
      • Evaluators can ask others to chime in on an employee’s performance
      • Can be used in addition to the shared feedback workflow, for instances where feedback isn’t appropriate or necessary to share with the employee (e.g., scoring, promotion consideration, etc.)
  • Private notes
    • Private self-reflection, like a diary
    • Evaluators can log notes on an individual
      • They can use these as prompts and reminders on work they want to remember or consider during annual evaluations
      • An optional tool to combat recency bias in evaluations, so that evaluators remember more than just the last couple months of work

Organizations can use as many workflows as they like in some RTF software, allowing your evaluators to shift between shared and private feedback as needed. Software can also allow you to customize or design the exact workflow your organization needs.

Feedback triggers: How do you prompt your employees to initiate real-time feedback?

Your people should be reminded when they should ask for feedback or give feedback. An easy way to do this is with RTF software that can send notifications at certain times or when certain thresholds are met. The most common ways for feedback to be triggered are:

  • Ad hoc: Without prompting, an employee can request feedback or an evaluator can offer it at any time. This is the most common trigger due to its open application.
  • Hours worked: The system can automatically recommend that an employee request feedback once they’ve worked a set amount of hours on a project.
  • Recency or latency: The system can automatically recommend that an employee request feedback if they haven’t received any for a set amount of time.
  • Time-based: The system can recommend requesting feedback on a recurring basis, like every month or every quarter.

Feedback cadence: How often should you prompt employees to initiate real-time feedback?

What works for your organization will vary, but the two main questions to ask are:

  • How often do your people want to be reminded to ask for or give feedback?
    • Weekly is too much for a lot of people, so biweekly or monthly is more common.
  • How long does it take for a meaningful amount of work to get done?

This usually lands between 2-4 weeks, so that there’s enough time for something significant to have happened.

Feedback on projects: How can you use real-time feedback to assess performance on client work?

For professional services organizations, linking RTF to specific projects gives you insight into client work and identifies opportunities to course correct performance.
  • With RTF software, you can set triggers that automatically let an employee know that they’ve put in significant time on a project. It reminds them to reflect on their work and empowers them to seek out confirmation or correction as needed. But it also gives them an inkling about where it’s most appropriate to ask for feedback, so they don’t overdo their requests or waste time on less significant work.
  • Project-based RTF triggers are effective for reminding your people that the system exists and is there for them to use. They can help make sure the system is front and center and gains as much traction as possible, especially if you don’t have a preexisting feedback culture.
  • The feedback you attach to a project doesn’t just have to be about how the employee is contributing to the work at hand. RTF can cover how the individual is acting, whether they are a team player, their communication skills, their work ethic, their project management, and more. Feedback from multiple matters paints a picture of how they are contributing to the organization overall.
  • Linking feedback for multiple individuals to the same project gives the leadership insight into how teams are being managed. They can track high-profile client projects and ensure that all the employees on the team are being utilized and learning effectively.

Feedback forms: How can you design your real-time feedback forms to encourage effective feedback?

Designing your forms is crucial to determining the accuracy and effectiveness of your feedback and data collection.

  • For most RTF, we recommend as short and concise a form as possible, especially if your organization isn’t used to giving feedback. That way you get the most useful information as possible without inundating them with work. A quick form also keeps feedback real-time, so it’s completed while it’s fresh in a manager’s mind and shared with an employee as soon as possible.
  • All you really need to ask to keep it concise and effective is a) what was done well, b) what could have been done better, and c) what should be done next. This will both boost the individual’s confidence and show them how to improve. Loading up a form with questions will just muddle what the employee needs to improve. Showing them quantitative ratings just tells them what they already did, not whether to continue or how to be better, plus it can affect their confidence. Make it qualitative and explain what worked and what didn’t, but keep it succinct.
  • You might consider including scores but hiding them from the employees, so you can collect metrics on how they are improving. You can set visibility to evaluators and administrators only, then these statistics can be embedded in annual reviews to show evaluators score progress based on feedback given throughout the year.
  • If an organization is looking to replace their annual evaluations with project-based RTF, the forms will get longer and more vigorous, as they’ll want to capture the in-depth detail of an employee’s performance and competencies on each project. There will also be room for ratings and comments to substitute for annual reviews. In this case, the increased work shouldn’t be so daunting, as it replaces the work of year-end evaluations and spreads the same work out throughout the year.

Feedback approval: Should you review and approve real-time feedback in your organization?

For some organizations, there’s no need to approve feedback. They have an open culture, where information flows freely and they trust that evaluators aren’t going to say anything inappropriate.

If the organization is more cautious or worried about inappropriate language or less sensitive comments, every piece of shared feedback can go to an approval stage before it’s released to the employee.

  • In RTF software, most organizations only give that approval responsibility to their HR managers or professional development teams. You won’t want everyone to have admin access to your system, but make sure your approval team isn’t going to get overloaded by requests. This stops the approval step from being a bottleneck, so you can keep your feedback moving in real-time.

Feedback meetings: How often should you review real-time feedback with employees?

Regular feedback meetings can be difficult to arrange at professional services organizations. Instead, a meeting can be held every quarter or so to review the accumulated feedback with the employee. RTF systems can also be designed to give people the option to request a meeting with a manager, or with a member of the HR or professional development team, if they feel that they need one.

  • We recommend a hybrid approach. An in-person meeting (or remote call) is great when you have the time, as long as you’re still recording the feedback in the system for accountability and feedback history. But it’s not always possible, and it can slow down the process when you can’t see people in person or get them on the phone soon enough.
  • With RTF software, the system is open 24/7, allowing you to submit and respond to a feedback request from anywhere. It’s like an email or a quick in-person chat, but without the coordination (and with the instant documentation). The people involved can refer back to it at any time, including during annual reviews. It’s a more organized and trackable process, which gives an organization a window into the resulting data and aggregates it against the individual’s peers.
  • It fills in the gaps between meetings and tracks results the whole way through. So consider the meeting option an additional, nice-to-have step. You can either fill out the form with the employee present, or review it with them when you’re done. Or consider collecting all of an employee’s feedback for the quarter and reviewing it, checking in on their goals and helping them plan for the next quarter.

How can you use a real-time feedback system for 360-degree feedback?

A growing trend in professional services, 360-degree feedback involves opening the door to feedback in any direction: downward, upward, and peer to peer. It can be a two-way conversation (“let’s give each other feedback”) or a way of getting better insight and communication from remote teams.

Multidirectional feedback can be harder to adopt, since it’s not as ingrained in workplaces as managers reviewing their employees. Here are some suggestions for how your organization can get started and experiment to find out what works:

  • Open up your RTF system so that people can give and receive feedback widely, with no limitations, and encouraging them to take advantage of it
  • Incentivize peer feedback or upward feedback, which are less common
  • Set specific rules on which type of roles can give feedback to other roles, to help guide 360-degree feedback rather than making it a free-for-all (e.g., only the more senior associates can give feedback to partners)

CHAPTER 4: COACHING YOUR PEOPLE ON GIVING AND RECEIVING FEEDBACK

What are the best practices for giving and receiving feedback?

How your organization gives and receives feedback depends on what you do and what you need feedback to do. We’ve collected some resources and methods to help you determine that.

The FAST feedback model

Popularized by Bruce Talgan, FAST feedback is a model managers can follow to effectively coach employees with feedback. FAST stands for Frequent, Accurate, Specific, and Timely. We’ve summarized the model here, but more information can be found in his book, Fast Feedback.

  • Frequent: You’d expect this point to be about how often you give an employee feedback, and it is, but it’s also about customizing that feedback cadence to the unique frequency of each employee. If you just give every employee feedback constantly, chances are you’ll be micromanaging some of them, and not giving them the chance to consider your feedback and apply it to their performance.
    • What your organization can do: Use automated software triggers to suggest that employees ask for feedback regularly or when they reach certain thresholds in their work. Outside of this, keep encouraging employees to ask for feedback and managers to offer feedback when it is most needed. You never know where an opportunity for feedback will come up.
  • Accurate: According to Talgan, this is about thoughtfully crafting feedback so that it is factual, delivers the right balance of praise and criticism, and uses the appropriate tone. When real-time feedback is quick and easy to fire off, it’s easy to forget how much your word choice can make the difference between a manager and a mentor.
    • What your organization can do: Encourage managers to be thorough, sensitive, and instructive, no matter how small or meaningless a piece of feedback seems. Take pulse surveys to see how employees are feeling about the feedback they receive. Train and educate managers in the art of constructing accurate and thoughtful feedback.
  • Specific: The more detailed and actionable, the better. Follow your accurate assessment of an employee’s performance with specific instructions and deadlines for what the next steps should be. Make it easy for the employee to take your advice and use it to produce better results.
    • What your organization can do: Continue to encourage a balance between coaching and micromanaging. Teach managers to make sure feedback is clear on what result you’d like to see, a recommended next move, and enough explanation so that an employee can take that next move.
  • Timely: It’s not fast (or real-time) if it isn’t done as soon as possible. Take time to complete feedback requests or offer new feedback regularly. Make sure that performance issues are resolved while they are still fresh in everyone’s minds, and before they become habits that are much harder to break.
    • What your organization can do: Encourage managers to carve out time to consider employee performance and complete feedback requests or initiate feedback every week. If possible, allow for mobile use of the module, so feedback can be done on the go.
The Situation-Behavior-Impact Feedback Model

Developed by the Center for Creative Leadership, Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) is a framework for giving frequent, constructive feedback on an employee’s performance. In every step of the model, it’s important to focus on finding solutions without placing blame.

  • Situation: Outline the specific situation you’re referring to, including when and where it happened.
    • Example: In yesterday’s presentation, when you were speaking in front of the team and the client…
  • Behavior: Describe the behavior that you observed and want to address. Keep to the facts. Don’t insert judgements or assume you know what they were thinking.
    • Example: In yesterday’s presentation, when you were speaking in front of the team and the client, I noticed that you had trouble answering the client’s question about our research.
  • Impact: Explain the effects the behavior had on you or others in the organization. Describe what you thought or felt in reaction.
    • Example: In yesterday’s presentation, when you were speaking in front of the client, I noticed that you had trouble answering the client’s question about our research. I’m concerned that it may have reflected badly on the team and affected our relationship with the client.

The Center for Creative Leadership also suggests adding “Intent” to the model (SBI-I) as a way to uncover the “why” behind the behavior. This gives the employee the chance to explain what they intended or what was going on with them. It turns feedback into a two-way coaching conversation, as the feedback giver can connect the intent to the impact. They will get a clearer view of the situation and will be better equipped to help the employee find a solution.

The model can also be used to reinforce and praise positive behavior. The feedback giver can make suggestions for next steps on further developing the highlighted behavior.

The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (Book)

Though it was published in the late 90s, The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback was already highlighting the benefits of continuous feedback in the workplace:

When everyone on your team learns to provide and expect feedback that is focused on acts, directed toward the future, goal oriented, multidirectional, supportive, and continual, you will find that feedback sessions become opportunities for creative problem solving rather than dreaded encounters. Everyone on your team will share the same language, and you will be able to share ideas without fear of hurt feelings or reprisals.

The book is filled with techniques and worksheets that make a great reference point for managers who are looking to give better feedback and employees that want to make the most of the feedback they receive.

CHAPTER 5: REAL-TIME FEEDBACK TECHNOLOGY

What tools and technology can you use for real-time feedback

Real-time feedback software creates a detailed feedback system that is easy to use and easy to maintain. It can lighten the workload on your leadership, management, and employees. It can also keep your organization connected, allowing people to give or receive feedback whether they’re in the office, traveling for work, or working from home.

FACT

71% of employees and managers say technology powering real-time feedback will improve performance management and 67% say it’s a positive HR change.

Source: Accenture Strategy

What to look for in RTF software

  • Open access: An 24/7 system that allows you to submit and respond to a feedback request from anywhere, including on mobile
  • Project-based feedback: Imports projects directly from billing systems and suggest feedback requests at checkpoints or billing thresholds
  • Use of multiple feedback workflows: Allows evaluators to shift between shared and private feedback as needed
  • Feedback suggestions: Can offer reminders or suggestions for feedback at certain times or when certain thresholds are met
  • Customization: Support to customize or design workflows specific to your organization and customize criteria for feedback triggers
  • Scoring: An option to add scores to feedback and hide them from employees
  • Approval: An option to have every piece of shared feedback go to an approval stage before it gets released to an employee

If you want to learn more about viGlobal’s RTF software, contact us for a demo.